Admit It, You’re Curious: Learn These Strategies to Write Better Headlines

Headlines have become increasingly important in the online era, and associations have to write a lot of them. Here are a few tips to leverage to maximize your content’s reach.

Associations may not be newspapers, but like publications and other media outlets, they have to write a lot of headlines, whether for blog posts, emails, white papers, or other communications. Here are some headline-writing tips to help you draw in your audience, and move the needle on your messaging.

Focus on the Power of SEO

Writers and search engine optimization don’t always fit together comfortably, but the fact of the matter is, many people are going to find your articles through methods such as search engines. If your headlines are written to be cute or funny rather than relevant, it could threaten the reach of the stories you write.

As Poynter noted, it’s important to embrace things that in a prior era of headline writing would be considered a no-no, such as using full names of the individuals and organizations you’re writing about.

“Users searching for information on a person are more likely to use both first and last names in their searches, but print headlines have traditionally only used last names,” author Vicki Krueger writes. “An SEO-friendly headline will use both names.”

The Substack newsletter WTF is SEO?, which highlights search-engine considerations for news outlets in particular, says that length (under 70 characters) is also an important consideration. One other factor? Where the keywords end up. As authors Jessie Willms and Shelby Blackley write, it’s useful to think about the placement of your keywords in headlines.

“When readers scan your homepage or results in search, they will often only read part of a headline. So, you want to make the most of the first few words,” said Willms and Blackley. “Focus on getting the key takeaway at the front.”

Consider Your Target Audience

Not every element of your content strategy is going to be targeted at your members or even within your organization. It may be aimed at the outside world, and a poor aim could blunt its impact.

A few years ago, the National Association of Realtors did something to this effect when they shifted their content strategy when sending out press releases on PR Newswire.

Mixing timeliness and a focused news hook, the organization emphasized headlines that front-loaded relevant details, with a data point often leading the way. As NAR often deals with data-heavy reports, this gave the press releases added relevance.

“One of our key takeaways was to take a closer look at our releases’ headline,” said Sara Wiskerchen, the association’s former managing director of media communications. “They weren’t as concise or as compelling as they could be.”

Improve Your Click Through Rate (CTR) With Curiosity

You’ve seen one Upworthy headline, you’ve seen them all, right? Sure, those overly click-friendly headlines might feel like a bit of a meme, but they do have their place.

CoSchedule, a company that produces a useful free headline analyzer, says that creating a curiosity gap can prove an important way to draw interest from readers.

The company’s Peyton Muldoon said it’s a question of playing into psychology. “If you have something that makes your audience question their knowledge about a subject or want to know more, they are bound to click to find answers,” she wrote.

If you have something that makes your audience question their knowledge about a subject or want to know more, they are bound to click to find answers.

— Peyton Muldoon, CoSchedule

Consider A/B Testing, but Don’t Let It Define You

One thing that many organizations do, whether for emails or on websites, is A/B test different headlines to see what works the most effectively with their audience. This can be a great way to uncover different tactics that might work with a particular audience or piece of content.

But this approach has its limits. Last year, researchers from the Computational Journalism Lab at Northwestern University did a study of the impact of A/B testing on headlines in major newspapers, and found that trying to extract broader lessons from an A/B success story was inconclusive.

“Our results suggest that interpreting and extrapolating A/B test results like that is fraught, and might even lead to bad recommendations,” researchers Nick Hagar and Nick Diakopoulos explained in a piece for Harvard University’s Nieman Lab. “So-called ‘best practices’ can propagate without any basis in audiences’ real preferences. Headline writing only accounts for a small slice of what predicts a winning headline.”

Don’t Get Too Clever With Your Phrasing

If you’re a former print magazine editor, odds are you know a thing or two about clever plays on words in headlines, which are often seen as effective ways to draw people in. But in the online era, these headlines can prove a bit too clever in a world of aggregation.

An NPR training guide for headline writing recommends emphasizing the spirit of the subject matter over a clever approach. There is room for fun, the public radio broadcaster notes, but it has its limits.

“A headline with a pun or a cultural reference is fun to write, but is it needed? Will people get it? Or will people spend too much time trying to ‘get’ your joke? Again—creative and unique and full of life, but not too clever,” wrote the guide’s authors, Colin Dwyer and Stephanie Federico.

(JLGutierrez/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!